And what’s her connection to the Rolling Stones?
Icons and statues make her appear utterly terrifying. She is red-eyed with rage, and her tongue lolls manically out of her mouth. She holds a sword in one of her many hands, a severed head in another. Around her neck she wears a garland of skulls.
She looks ferocious, even evil, to the western mind. But among Hindus, the goddess Kali represents both destruction and creation – the dual forces of nature: death and rebirth.
The sword is not intended to represent violence, but the primacy of wisdom and knowledge. The severed head symbolizes the death of the ego, and the garland of skulls represents the transience of life. The iconic, protruding tongue shows her thirst for truth.
Kali statues are often black, though in Indian art she is more often blue for the cosmic energy that first brought life into being.
Through her destructive aspect, Kali teaches her followers to let go of the impermanent attachments of life, while her creative aspect as a divine mother represents the cycle of life, of death, and of regeneration.
The lesson is that new things can only grow after the old has been destroyed. We have to let go of old attachments in order to bring about the renewal of change.
Much of the goddess’s bad press comes from her association with the Thuggee cult – criminal gangs that existed in India for almost six hundred years.
The Thuggees targeted travellers. They posed as fellow travellers to gain the trust of their victims before robbing and murdering them.
The connection between the Thuggees and Kali can be traced to the time of the Raj and attempts by British colonial officers to understand the gang’s mystic rituals. The British claimed that the Thuggees believed they were the children of Kali, created from her sweat, and that they offered human sacrifices to her.
There’s no evidence for this. In fact, about a third of the Thuggees caught and convicted by the British were Muslims, not Hindus.
This is where the modern term thug originated.
And the Rolling Stones connection? The tongue and lips motif used by the band since 1971 was inspired by Kali.
FOOTNOTE: Venom is a fast-paced historical thriller based on true events. It’s about a serial killer who prowled the ‘70s hippie trail in Asia, befriending lonely travellers before robbing and murdering them.
For me, the story has echoes of the legend of Kali and the Thuggees, and Kali appears in my book. That’s her on the cover.